From its position on the top of a hill to the east of the city of Lisbon, St George’s Castle (Castelo do São Jorge) has wonderful views over the Baixa district and the River Tejo and dominates the Lisbon skyline, being one of the most photographed buildings from the miradouros of São Pedro de Alcântara and the Santa Justa elevador, particularly at sunset and after dark. However, the history of the castle is as interesting as, if not more than, the present-day building. It is located on what was an ancient settlement on top of a hill above the Alfama district. There has been a fortress on the site since before the Moorish times, but the structure of the current castle, with a wall encircling the former Moorish city, including the Santa Cruz district which remains within the castle walls, was built by the Moors in the tenth century. In 1147 the king, Dom Afonso Henriques, formed an army made up of crusaders from Britain and France to overthrow the Moors, promising them the spoil (in a plan similar to that employed by Dom Sancho I in Silves in 1189). Despite the attack on the castle, the Moors held Afonso Henriques’ army off for four months, but eventually the Christian army gained entry, overpowering the Moors, and then going on to ransack the city and murder anyone who got in their way. There is a legend that a knight called Martim Moniz lay down in the doorway so that the Moors couldn’t shut it, thus allowing Afonso Henriques’ army to enter. Martim Moniz died in the process, but is considered a hero and there is a small bust of him on a wall in the castle and he even has a square named after him in Lisbon. From 1255 the castle housed the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and was the residence of the king, until the beginning of the sixteenth century when the royal residence was moved to the Praça do Comércio. In the fourteenth century Dom Fernando I built a 5400-metre-long wall around the castle, with 77 towers, parts of which are still standing today. At the entrance to the castle, just before the main gate, the Porta de São Jorge, is a small statue in a glass case on the wall of the eponymous St George (São Jorge). He has no physical connection with the castle, but it was dedicated to him by Dom João I at the end of the fourteenth century, after his marriage to Philippa of Lancaster, as a symbol of unity between England and Portugal, as Saint George was an important saint for both countries.
After the Royal Palace was moved to the Praça do Comércio the castle was used at various times as a prison, military barracks, hospital and even a theatre.
Although the famous earthquake of 1755 badly damaged the castle, it did not completely destroy it. In the twentieth century parts of it were renovated under the direction of the Salazar regime, but today it is essentially a shell. There are a few parts of the castle that have some interest, mainly the ramparts and towers, plus parts of the former Royal Palace of Alcáçova, but most people visit the castle for the views and it is true that the view that greets you from the Praça das Armas, the large tree-lined terrace with a statue of Dom Afonso Henriques in the centre, is stunning. From here there are undisturbed views of the Santa Justa elevador and the Convento do Carmo; Rossio square and Praça da Figueira in the Baixa; and the 25th April Bridge crossing the River Tejo, with the monument of Cristo Rei on the opposite bank.
From here it is a short walk to the castle itself, walking over a bridge which crosses a dried-up moat into the interior of the castle.
Sections of the ramparts can be walked on, giving more views of the Baixa and the river, plus Graça Church, São Vicente de Fora Church and the National Pantheon and giving access to the remaining towers, including one which has a camera obscura in it projecting 360° views of Lisbon on the walls.
As well as this, there is an archaeological site and a few wells, sculptures and fountains dotted around the grounds and a small museum in a section of what was the Royal Palace of Alcáçova, displaying objects found on the archaeological site, some of which date back to the seventh century BC. The other remaining parts of the Royal Palace now house a café and the Casa do Leão restaurant (meaning ‘House of the Lion’ and named after the fact that lions were kept there in the fifteenth century. Nowadays peacocks have replaced lions in the grounds.
The walk to the castle is a wonderful opportunity to wander through the steep narrow streets of the old Moorish quarters, zigzagging up the steep hill to the top. A place where time seems to have stood still.
Castelo do São Jorge, Porta de São Jorge, Rua do Chão da Feira, Lisbon
Opening hours: November to February 9am-6pm; March to October 9am-9pm
Entrance: €8.50 (as of 2017)
28 tram from the Baixa or Largo do Martim Moniz: stops at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (it is an uphill walk to the castle from here)
737 bus from Praça da Figueira: stops near the entrance to the castle
Elevador Baixa-Castelo: the trip is done in two lifts. The first lift goes from Rua dos Fanqueiros in the Baixa to Rua da Madalena. The second lift goes from the Pingo Doce supermarket in Largo do Chão do Loureiro to Costa do Castelo. It runs from 9am-9pm daily.